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American Impressions, Chapter 44: Colorado
Mesa Verde Then and Now

Carved out of 78-million-year-old orange sandstone by ice and water, the cave gapes wide as a whale’s yawn against the canyon face. It is 216 feet at its widest point, 89 feet at its deepest, an area one-third the size of a football field. It looks inaccessible, claustrophobic, ready to implode under the weight of its cantilevered rock ceiling. Yet it is as densely built-up as a Hong Kong city block. End to end, remnants of apartment buildings and towers three stories high kiss the ceiling of the cave. Their walls of chiseled stone look like the work of Italian masons. Eight or nine circular pits create extra space downward, like basements. A passageway splits the dwellings like a main street through a village. If there’d been green road signs in the 13 th century, the one planted on the rock face that doubled as the footpath outside this village would have read: “Pop. 125,” a staggering number of people for a hole in the wall. Only, now the place looks like the site of a neutron bombing. The village is all there. The people are gone.

They left 700 years ago in enough of a hurry that all sorts of things stayed behind, as if the cave were a sinking ship—jewelry, clothes, blankets, baskets, piles of trash that had accumulated at the rear of the cave, a few dead bodies, corn cobs, sandals, tools, mugs to die for, and, of course, those old condos. They also left behind that silence that now greets the visitor to southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde on cool autumn afternoons, when the sun is stronger than the wind and the shivers all have to do with the beauty of the place, not the cold.

We are two dozen or so random visitors walking on the lip of the cave, quietly admiring the structures, staring through windows as if to look inside the enigma, touching the stones that those nameless masons shaped hundreds of years ago, and asking ourselves, with those outmoded preconceptions that reduce all pre-Colombian Americans to noble savages, where they got the engineering know-how to make it all hang just right. Preconceptions aside, we learn that they did not get the know-how from anywhere. They learned it over their thousand-year history, which was nearing what we call civilization status by the time they started turning caves into villages in the late 1100s.

They wrote nothing down, so all we know is by conjecture, touching and feeling our way through skeletal leftovers. We descend into one of those pits, which are actually called kivas. They have an elaborately functional architecture of their own, and were either some sort of ceremonial sanctuary or family room, or both. They each have a fireplace, a ventilation system, a little hole in the ground called sipapu, which is a symbolic wormhole to ancestry, and holes in the wall to put pretty objects in. Interior decoration was a must. Back up-ladder, we count as many rooms as we can by following the contours of the stone walls. A trained archaeologist would count 114 rooms in this particular cave, knit so tightly together that privacy or individualism could not have been in the vocabulary of whatever language was spoken at the time. We look at the ceiling, black with fossilized soot, a visual echo of countless hearths and turkey dinners from those warehoused centuries.

It is all too quiet for such a density of history.
And in fact, the silence in the canyon, like the cave’s given name—Spruce Tree House—is the most misleading filler of the villagers’ exile. With its hundred-some inhabitants, no noise ordinance that we know of, and excellent acoustics, the cave from sun-up to sunset would have been a symphonic hall of percussionists and bellowers jamming without a conductor. Women would have been grinding corn, tanning hides, shaping (or breaking) pottery, slaughtering and cooking game. Men would have been carving stones or arrowheads or bone awls, loitering on rooftops or acting esoteric in their kivas.

Everyone would have been chomping on elk or deer steak, telling jokes (one of the oldest Indian traditions), and letting children do what they will without reprimand (another Indian tradition). The word “noise” probably had many synonyms in the cave-dwellers’ vocabulary.

No one knows the village’s name, or whether villages were named at all. Spruce Tree House is one of those latter-day Anglo stamps of identity from the same bland ink well that condemns suburban subdivisions to addresses like Chestnut Hollow and Green Acres. Cliff-dwellings and mesa-top villages inside Mesa Verde National Park have all been equally condemned. Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, Far View: The names say more about how we’d rather see the villages—how they look from the outside in—than how their Anasazi builders saw them as part of their life and their environment.

But then, names are tricky all over the Southwest. We barely know what the Anasazi called themselves. Like many Indian tribes, they may have called themselves “The People.” Anasazi is a given name, and it’s difficult to find agreement on its meaning, being a Navajo word that means either “The Old People,” according to the great historian Samuel Elliot Morrison, or “enemy ancestors,” according to writer Alex Shoumatoff (the Anasazi were the Navajo’s sworn enemies), or “ancient ones,” “ancient foreigners” or “ancient enemies,” depending on which National Park Service brochure you read. The Anasazi had nothing to do with naming Mesa Verde, either. The words are Spanish for “green table,” although “mesa,” pronounced as it is in Spanish or English, also happens to be the Arabic word for “smorgasbord”—a fitting description of Mesa Verde’s riches.

Mesa Verde National Park’s hundreds of cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages are a concentrated excavation through a more technologically advanced past than most Americans imagine existed on the continent before its European discovery. But the park’s 80 square miles represent a fraction of the Mesa Verde geography, which extends more than 150 miles from the Colorado River in Utah to the Animas River in Colorado, straddling the area known as Four Corners (where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona join). In turn, Mesa Verde country forms only a small part of the many ancient cultural regions of the Southwest.

Scattered nomads began roaming about the Southwest about 7,000 B.C. Projectile points dating 5,000 years have been found on Mesa Verde. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the first millennium that the region’s nomads decided to settle down, first as cave-dwellers, without the condos, then as pit-dwellers: they dug the kind of pits in the earth that would later become their kivas, finding in them protection against the cold winters. They learned to farm. Corn, bean and squash, which had been grown on Mexico’s Aztec lands since 4,000 B.C., made their way north to the tribes of the San Juan Valley, around Mesa Verde, after 300 A.D.

Agriculture begot culture. The Anasazi became masters at basket-making, ceramics, tools, jewelry—and architecture. Beginning around 700, pit-houses yielded to kivas, and villages grew above ground. The Pueblo culture was born. The Anasazi’s social, economic and religious organization became as complex as their urban planning. These weren’t isolated villages subsisting on their own but rather a network of trading and cultural districts extending from Mesa Verde to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Kayenta, Arizona. Infrared scanners have remote-sensed 500 miles of straight roads fanning out from the Pueblos.
They had trading centers, the era’s stock exchange.

Some 18 miles north of the Mesa Verde range, on top of a small mountain with a panoramic view of the San Juan Valley, two Spanish friars discovered an elaborate Pueblo of 20 rooms and a huge kiva in 1776. The Escalante site, named after the friars, was fully excavated when the federal government built the McPhee reservoir in the late 1960s, in the valley below—an irrigation project that simultaneously located 1,600 Anasazi sites and flooded hundreds of them forever. Escalante was a trading post built in 1129. Like landlocked Phoenicians, the Anasazi traded goods there from as far as California, Texas, Mexico and the Rockies, exchanging the Four Corners’ raw materials (timber, deer hides, produce) for luxury items like abalone, turquoise, obsidian, or Mexican parrot feathers, all of which were used in ceremonies. Bxxxxxxxy then, Anasazi culture was at its peak. The cliff-dwellings were its ultimate flowering.

On a snowy December day in 1888, two cowboys riding on the mesa top looked across the canyon and saw a miniature town rising from rubble inside a cave. Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were chasing after cattle when they first saw the “magnificent city” that has become known as Cliff Palace, North America’s largest cliff-dwelling. That first contact was like an aftershock of Columbus’ accidental bump against the North American continent, a chance encounter that would open a world simultaneously to revelation and plunder.

For 18 years, Wetherill and Mason—along with many explorers and tourists—turned Mesa Verde into a playground and campground, scouring the cliff-dwellings for their troves of artifacts as quickly as they uncovered them. It wasn’t until 1906 that the government protected Mesa Verde, and 1909 before it was excavated by archaeologists. But to this day, Anasazi descendants resent incursions into their past. Excavations are to them like graverobbing.

Trails and concrete walkways have been built to reach Mesa Verde’s larger dwellings, like Cliff Palace, which has 217 rooms and 23 kivas (it held a population of 250). But three-quarters of Mesa Verde’s 600 cliff-dwellings are clusters of five rooms or less. Some of the most remarkable among them are almost invisible, and virtually inaccessible. They attach themselves to sandstone alcoves just below the canyon rims, like the 29 room-scattering that forms Hemenway House.

I would have never noticed them had signs not pointed them out from various cliff edges along the canyon. The dwellings seem fit only for misanthropes or outcasts, but were actually households that simply chose to use the environment to their advantage. Much of Anasazi architecture, from pit-houses to cliff-dwellings, is logical blending with what’s already there rather than an attempt to outdo nature.
Mesa Verde is a measure of the Anasazi’s success—and failure: They were fine as long as nature cooperated. Then it didn’t.

One can only guess, but after two major droughts in their history there, the Navajo’s constant attacks, the distance from Choco Canyon, the Anasazi could very well have reached the point of a collective shrug, leaving Mesa Verde for the same reason that hundreds of thousands of homesteaders left the Great Plains in the 19 th and early 20 th century: They couldn’t make a go of it. Persisting with their mean streak, Navajo Indians to this day think that the Anasazi didn’t belong on Earth anymore, that an explosion of the volcano known as Sunset Crater near Flagstaff, Ariz., wiped them out.

Even the novelist Louis L’Amour has portrayed them as a sinister, underworld race. In his “Enchanted Mesa,” the Anasazi are a dying breed of body-snatchers.
They emerge from a hole at the bottom of a remote canyon in the form of seductive women who kidnap humans to breed with them for survival.
The Anasazi have not been a lucky people. Roads and trails make Mesa Verde seem like a easy place to reach today, but it was a harsh and unpredictable environment. “Each ruin represents a defeat, a promise that did not hold,” Schoumatoff has written. “That is the history of the Southwest: a continuous series of boom-and-but cycles, one group of people coming in and bravely making a go of it for a while, but ultimately being forced to bail out for one reason or other—a prolonged drought, a meteor strike, or, in the most recent case, the end of the Cold War (which has been extinguishing missile ranges and military labs in New Mexico).”

It hasn’t helped that travel writers, encouraged by local chambers of commerce, have turned the Anasazi into the Indian equivalent of UFOs. The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace “was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery,” writes Diana Kappel-Smith in “Desert Time.” “Who were these people, where did they go, and why?” “There is no archaeologist that would buy into the mystery part of that,” says Mark Varian, an archeologist involved in on-going digs near Mesa Verde. The Anasazi left the area, but not the country—or the planet. They are an integral part of today’s Pueblo culture in New Mexico and Arizona, where Zuni and Hopi Indians consider themselves their descendants. “Modern Pueblo people wouldn’t see a break, and archaeologists wouldn’t see a break, either.”

Crow Canyon Archeological Center is a hybrid—an educational tourism company that sends groups on expeditions in Mexico, the Middle East and the Southwest, while conducting for the past 16 years some of the most innovative excavations in Mesa Verde country. There since 1987, Mark Varian is one of Crow Canyon’s leading archeologists. I met him on a 40-acre dig called Sheilds Pueblo (after a former landowner), on a clear day when you could see Mesa Verde’s green top crisply outlined against the sky 12 miles away—a hint of why smoke signals were e-mail’s ancestors.
We walked on a field that had grown pinto beans, wheat and oats for years this century. But a few feet below us were the buried grids and circles of rooms, homes and kivas that had formed a large valley village until 700 years ago. Crow Canyon’s three-year project wouldn’t excavate more than one percent of it.
It’s a matter of disturbing the site as little as possible while preserving it for future generations, when archeological methods are likely to be less intrusive and better prepared to look for the right clues.

Standing next to one of the kivas that has been exhumed, you get the strange sense of looking back through time, but without the benefit of translation. To the untrained eye, it’s still a hole in the ground—a well-designed, well-preserved hole carefully built of a circular stone wall. But its story is a garble. This is Mesa Verde raw, and it doesn’t seem that different from the cleaned-up, gentrified version on the mountain.

Crow Canyon’s archeologists are studying the Anasazi’s migration patterns within the valley before their final migration out of it, trying to piece together the story of their last century in Mesa Verde country as a case study in demographics, in the relationship between humans and the natural environment, in the possible consequences of overpopulation (one of the theories ascribed to the Anasazi’s exile). To hear Varian speak, understanding the Anasazi experience there could be a Rosetta Stone for “what it means to be human.” The larger story may not be a mystery, but the details pertinent to understanding the Anasazi’s artistic and social sensibilities actually are.

They left large amounts of beautifully-patterned pottery, but no books, no testimonies, no art for the sake of doctoral studies.
Their petroglyphs are not much more than doodles and shorthand for what we already know. We’ll never hear their “Illiad” or their “Odyssey.” Their Homer, unlike Greece’s, kept his oral epics oral to the end. What we do know is that storytelling was part of life, and in Mesa Verde’s cave-dwellings, acoustics favored the great performer, something no amount of archeology will ever recover. As silences go, this one mourns.





Total area: 104,100 sq. miles (rank: 8)

Population (1997): 3,892,644 (rank: 25)

State capital: Denver

Economy: Manufacturing, tourism, aerospace, construction.

Nickname & Motto: Centennial State; Nothing without providence.

Entered union: Aug. 1, 1876 (38 th).

Notable facts: Cannibalism is the perennial enigma of anthropologically interesting people — did they or didn’t they? Archeologists are divided about the Anasazi’s taste for human flesh, but their increasingly scientific methods, which borrow heavily from forensics, are settling the question. In “Time Detectives,’’ a book on archeologists (Simon & Schuster, 1995), Brian Fagan tells of one field investigator who boiled deer bones to see whether jostling them in a pot would produce the same abrasions on them as he’d seen on human bones found at an Anasazi site. It did, leading him to believe that the Anasazi liked their human catches cooked.

The Anasazi in quotes: “Far above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone asleep. It was as still as sculpture — and sometimes like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower. . . . I had come upon the city of some extinct civilization, hidden away in this inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly an amber, guarded by the cliffs and the river and the desert.—From “The Professor’s House,’’ by Willa Cather.



* David Grant Noble’s “Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: An Archeological Guide’’ (Northland, $14.95) is a good survey of the Four Corners’ ancient history.

* “Anasazi Architecture and American Design,’’ edited by Baker Morrow and V.B. Price (University of New Mexico Press, $19.95), is a collection of essays by architects, artists, historians and archeologists who lend unique perspectives on the relationship between Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and contemporary American planning and architecture.

* Ex-New Yorker writer Alex Shoumatoff’s “Legends of the American Desert’’ (Knopf, $30) sprawls all over the Southwest, sometimes without a focus, but often through engaging vignettes of local history and culture.

Web Sites:

* Mesa Verde National Park:

* Crow Canyon Archeological Center:

* Anasazi Heritage Center:

* Colorado tourism:


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